INTERVIEW WITH JAMI THOMPSON (posted november 30, 2006)
I think I heard rumors that people made their own magazines before I actually saw a zine. The first concrete exposure I had was through Sassy's "Zine of the Month." I never saw any of the zines talked about in Sassy, but it totally planted a seed. I think the first time I saw a zine I was in 8th or 9th grade, so the early to mid-90s. I attempted to make zines in middle school. I actually wrote the first issue of No Better Voice with a girl I had gone to middle school with, but it never got printed. The first zines I got were from this record store in Berkley, Michigan called The Beat Hotel which specialized in ska. A lot of the zines were about music and ska culture, but I also got some personal type zines like Jenni's "Spinsterwitch" and Giovanni's "Cryptic Slaughter." Another store in Royal Oak, Michigan called Off The Record sold a few zines and I got my first issue of "Outpunk" there, probably two years after it was printed. I would go to music fests like More Than Music in Columbus, Ohio and Michigan Fest just to buy zines. I could take or leave the music aspect, but those were the only places I knew to get zines. I think the first time I went to Quimby's in Chicago I was 16 and spent $100 or more on zines.
why do you continue making paper zines in the age of the internet? how do you think the internet has affected the world of paper zines?
To me, internet-based publishing seems temporary compared to paper zines. A zine is not "livejournal on paper" as described by the Metro Times here in Detroit. Once you make a zine and start giving it to people, it can't be changed. You can change future copies, but the copies you gave out may be in circulation for a long time. For this reason I think people need to be more judicious about what they write in their zines as compared to what they might write in an internet journal or on a blog.
The internet has also centralized the zine community. I realized this when Shaun and I opened Stranger Danger. We wanted to do our distro in the way those in the past had--the whole "go to shows, sell zines, have a catalogue, sell zines through the mail" way. That is what we did at first and we didn't get any orders. Zinesters are really reliant on the internet to distribute their zines now.
I guess I would compare my continued paper zine efforts to this problem I have with double spaces when typing on a computer. I learned how to type on a typewriter and when using a typewriter you are supposed to space twice after the end of a sentence. Word processing programs do this for you, so you don't need to double space after a period. Unfortunately I am in the habit of spacing twice and continue to do this. Most people who learned how to type on a computer don't notice, but it drives the other people who learned to type on typewriters crazy. They immediately notice and want me to change. I can't! That is how zines in the internet age is for me. I will continue to make zines for as long as I want because, while I do use the internet, I am not as into the technology as people who have always had it around.
what is your writing/editing/layout process like?
I get distracted easily so ideally most of the writing, editing, and laying out should be done at the same time. I like to knock out a whole zine in a week or so. I find it takes me more time getting motivated to start a zine than to finish one. This is one of the reasons it is bad for me to take more than a day or so break when making a zine. I have done a lot of split zines recently and in part because having someone else working on a zine with me, even if not physically, helps motivate me.
Lately I use a lot of stuff that was written beforehand, sometimes for other sources and sometimes with a zine in mind. I can't really sit down and write things with a zine in mind when I am already starting do the layout. In the past my zine lacked editing and frequently had an unreadable layout. Words would flow off the side of the page, the layouts were really distracting and I wouldn't copy edit. I have been trying to use simpler layouts and strict, clean margins. For the majority of my recent zines I have used a computer for word processing. Typewritten zines look sweet, but whenever I use a typewriter my zine is illegible.
how do you think the zine community or the process of making zines has changed since you've been involved?
DIY culture has really changed a lot in the past ten years. The line between "underground" and mainstream is a lot more permeable. Mainstream culture is using DIY aesthetic to appeal to young consumers. The "underground" culture that fostered zines is starting to adopt more mainstream and traditional methods and tactics. I see this affecting the way zines are made, published, and distributed. I got into zines around the time when some of the publishers of more well-known zines were getting book deals, and not just from independent publishers. I see people branching out from zines more now than in the past.
The internet has had a huge affect on zines. It's a really centralizing force, which can be both bad and good. The good is that people who might not have been exposed to zines in the past, now can. Also it is easier to get zines. Unfortunately it has also taken some of the more personal aspects of zines away as people use the internet to communicate instead of paper letters. Though I do see some zinesters using the mail to swap zines and other stuff.
There used to be a lot of variety in the subjects of zines. There have always been a sizeable amount of personal, music, travel and poetry zines, but in the past I saw more zines that focused on their creator's own individualized interests and hobbies. Maybe the internet has filled this niche and now people don't feel the need to write a zine about collecting cereal boxes but I kind of miss them. Now I mostly see personal, poetry/fiction, and how-to zines.
are you "out" to people in your life as a zinester? how do you explain it to people who don't understand?
I don't hide the fact that I make zines. Usually if I talk to someone for long enough they will end up with a copy of my zine. Also I sometimes give out copies of my zine in a more formal, academic context. If someone doesn't know what a zine is I usually use the standard, "It's a homemade magazine," or "it's part of independent publishing." Sometimes I even just say, "I participate in independent publishing," type answer. Most people are just like, "Oh." I can tell they don't understand, but don't really care. I don't get into it any further. If someone shows interest I will give them some zines that I think might interest them.
what do you like best about the zine world? what do you like least?
It feels really good to have something to show for what I do, an actual physical thing. When I was a child I was jealous of the kids who were good at sports or sang well or whatever. I was like, "All I can do is write." I feel accomplished when I get a new issue done.
I have met a lot of amazingly creative and inspirational people through zines. That is one of the best things about making one. Shaun and I met through zines and now he is my best friend and we ran a distro together. Zines also introduced me to a lot of things I wouldn't have known about otherwise, especially politics. I felt more connected knowing there were other people out there who were open about their feelings, experiences, and politics. It is also awesome to introduce a new person to zines, especially if they end up making on themselves.
The thing I like least is the intra-politics of zines. Like in any community or group of people, there are going to be personal conflicts and hierarchies. Some people are just going to get more exposure, whether they deserve it or not, and that may create bad feelings. I really don't like how critical some people are of other people's projects. I think it's awesome if someone just does something as opposed to doing nothing. Yes, there are a lot of poorly-constructed and badly-written zines, zine conferences that go awry, and distros that have a less than stellar selection. If you don't like it, make your own, don't criticize someone else's, especially in public. If you have a problem with someone, tell them. I don't like how centralized the zine community has become on the internet, especially since it rarely takes into consideration that there are some people who don't have reliable access to the internet or who have no internet skills. Some people are doing cool things online, but there are others who don't benefit from it for various reasons. I don't like how homogenous the community is. I would love to see more 40+ zinesters, zinesters of color, queer zinesters, academic zinesters, so forth and so on. The only people who can make that happen are those already involved in zines and I rarely see much outreach.
do zines play a political role in your life? are you involved in other d.i.y. projects? do they play a political role?
My zines have become more and more political as I have become more and more political. When I first started making zines they were more of the "this is for my friends" type with stupid quotes and dumb stories that no one except my friends would care about. I took a three-year break from zines while I lived in Baltimore, DC, and London. I tried making the "this is for my friend" type zine when I moved back to Detroit, but it wasn't happening. I took another break. I started writing zines again trying to deal with some personal stuff I was going through, dealing with growing up in a really ageist society, being fat in a fatphobic society, and the general feeling of alienation that is very inherent in a capitalist, post-modern society. I also wrote about stuff like romance or lack thereof and basically just used my zine as a vehicle to continue writing when I probably wouldn't have written anything otherwise. In the last couple years, my zines have been outright political and I talk openly about reproductive rights, being queer, being fat and American Exceptionalism. I personally think the most political zine I wrote was about having HPV. Sometimes I write personal stuff or more academic stuff, but now everything is constantly under the microscope of my politics.
In the past, while I didn't write about politics, my exposure to zines really affected my knowledge of the world, and radical politics. Politics in a mainstream context or even in a NPR context are still very narrow and only give voice to a small fraction of the world.
In the past, I ran a distro and helped put on a zine fest with Jessika from "Do Not File Under Manifesto" and "Nourishing Ourselves with Herbs During Pregnancy". These were both zine-focused DIY projects. Right now I am more into doing non-DIY work with my local community like volunteering at a food bank and at the newly-opened Museum of Modern Art-Detroit (MOCAD). I don't know how many DIY projects, besides my zine, I will doing in the future.
what advice might you have for someone who is new to the zine community?
Watch your margins! Don't take bad reviews to heart. Trade! Have someone edit your zine for you--not just for spelling and grammar errors, but content as well.
I think an important thing for people to keep in mind when making their zine is "who is going to read this?" If you are making a zine full of inside jokes and pictures of your friends, that's cool, but no one is really going to want to read it besides your friends. You don't necessarily need to make your zine for anyone, but if you want other people to read it you can't just put some dry story about your trip to your Aunt Martha's and think people are going to line up to get it.
Another really important thing to remember is that, unlike a blog, zines are permanent and tangible. That means that in ten years your zine will probably still be floating around. There are things I wrote in early issues of my zine that are not just embarrassing, but shameful to me now
what role do you think distros can/should play in the zine community?
I use to run Stranger Danger Distro. Shaun and I started the distro mostly because no one in our area was selling zines and more selfishly, we wanted to promote our own projects. I like distros because it is usually easier to get zines from a distro than from an individual zine-maker. Distros can be more easily held accountable than an individual zine-maker if they don't send you the zines you ordered. Also distros sometimes have back issues that the zine maker no longer has, which is nice. Some people don't like distros because it is a step away from the personal interaction between zine maker and reader though.
Something I am not so hot on is zines being published by someone other than the creator. I understand why some people do it, but I feel like once the zine is not being fully produced by the person or people who made it, it is not a zine. I don't think distros should "publish" zines. I also am not into the idea of distros sellings zines to other distros. This takes away the contact between a zine writer and the person who ultimately decided how that zine is distributed. It takes a lot of control out of the zine-makers' hands, centralizes the process of making zines, sets up a hierarchy where one distro is more important than others and can fix prices, and also affects what zines get exposure and which don't.
are there changes you'd like to see in the zine community or your own zine creation?
As for the zine community, it pays a lot of lip service to being inclusive and respectful to everyone, but I have found this not to be the case. I would like to see more people outside the "zine norm" making zines--ie, white, middle class, 20-somethings who most likely grew up in the suburbs and usually come from a punk rock and/or independent music background. That is my background so while I appreciate this place where I am fairly well understood I think the "community" needs to be more respectful to other people and not just in a token way. I know some people who don't fit into this category who feel really disillusioned by some of the things that are said and done in the name of zines. If someone says, "what you wrote upset me," I don't think it's enough to say, "Well, that is how I feel and it's my zine so I can write whatever I want." I guess I want to see more accountability. If someone says, "I would not like you to resell my zine about being assaulted," there shouldn't even be an argument about it. Although I can't really go into the whole "reselling zines issue," it is something that has come up. I think there also needs to be an understanding that, paradoxically, zines are very personal, but also that they are a product which is being sold. I guess it's that way with all art.
I want my zine to be accessible to people who aren't part of the zine community. My most recent issue was done as part of an art show. I made a huge copy of the zine with each page being the size of a full piece of paper and hung it on the wall. There were small copies of the zine for people to take with them. When I meet new people I give them my zine, even if they haven't been exposed to underground/self-publishing before. When I went to the North American Labor History Conference I gave out zines to professors, students as well as non-academics and professionals who attended the conference.
I am torn between different directions I want my zine to go in. On one hand, I want it to be more academic, but on the other hand I want it to be more artistic. I am trying to find a balance.
I am working on a zine about my fair city of Detroit which is based on my undergrad thesis. My next zine will be a split with Neely of "Mend My Dress" and "Dear Stepdad." I love getting trades and try to write letters in a timely manner, but sometimes get distracted. I am more likely to write back if you contact me through the mail than online. Also if you want to discuss anything I have said in the above interview, contact me.